Quit indulging your FOMO, and embrace the joy of missing out

The goal of people’s lives has become doing as much as possible. But you can't do everything, and accepting that is the route to happiness.
Image: Unhappy Woman
There are lots of books on how to “get more done” but not a lot about doing less and taking longer over it.elenaleonova / Getty Images
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By Svend Brinkmann, professor of psychology, University of Aalborg

"Because you’re worth it,” proclaims the classic cosmetics ad. “Just do it!” implores the world-famous sporting goods company. And the sales blurb for the “happy pill,” Paxil, exhorts us to “Do more, feel better, live longer.” At every turn in our lives, we are encouraged to experience as much as possible, for as long as possible, in as many contexts as possible.

There is no doubt that these slogans reflect a culture that has long cultivated the idea of “as much as possible, as quickly as possible.” And why hold back when we have the choice?

Although the idea of “more, better, longer” may appear as exciting at first sight — you do only live once, as they say — the cultural result seems to be a pervasive fear of missing out. FOMO is a mild but ever-present form of anxiety, which has become a basic mood of our times.

Already more than 25 years ago, German sociologist Gerhard Schulze suggested that societies in the imagined hemisphere of the West had become “experience societies,” where the goal of people’s lives had become to experience as much as possible in their still-rather-short time on earth. Consequently, we fill our days with as many activities, relationships, jobs, partners, consumer products and exciting trips as possible, because we believe that this is where happiness lies.

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Sadly, however, FOMO seems to be the unavoidable result, because every time we choose or commit to something, we pay the price of opting out of something else.

In his book on “The Paradox of Choice,” psychologist Barry Schwarz demonstrates how this has created an epidemic of depression. The quest for more and more choices in life now creates despair, because people become ever more dissatisfied with what they have when they learn that there is always something else and better around the corner. The tragedy is compounded not just because more choices can lead to increased misery, but also because free choices are often an illusion, since people are actually constrained by numerous objective factors related to social class, race, gender and ethnicity, but are told that they only have themselves to blame when they do not succeed.

We need, then, to rediscover the existential virtue of missing out. We tell each other that it is better to do something we might regret than to regret not doing it, and missing out on something is now the worst-case scenario. This FOMO is then supported by our digital devices, which enable us to constantly check our phones for status updates, football scores, special deals or whatever else happens to be our cup of tea.

There are lots of books on how to “get more done” but not a lot about doing less and taking longer over it. But in a stressful age, that is exactly what we need to learn.

Philip Rieff, a sociologist and cultural critic, once wrote that the path to morality and culture’s deepest secrets is via the knowledge of what to avoid. In today’s world, we focus on saying yes and achievement, but far too little on no-saying and avoidance. The just-do-it ideology of our consumer societies tells us that we need to do and consume as much as possible in order to secure continued growth and prosperity, and moderation and “settling” for less have thus become vices rather than virtues.

Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips — who has written one of the few books on the importance of missing out — argues that we are haunted by the myth of our own potential. Rather than stating, like Socrates, that the unexamined life is not worth living, Phillips maintains that the unlived life is worth examining. His premise is that the unlived life — the life that we live in our imaginations, in art and in our dreams — is often more important to us than the one in which we actually live. To a large extent, it is the things that we opt out of and omit that make us who we are.

Existentialists claim that people are defined by their actions, but we should also realize that we are defined just as much by what we do not do. Missing out, however, is too often seen as a problem, as Phillips has learned from his patients: “Once the promise of immortality, of being chosen, was displaced by the promise of more life — the promise, as we say, of getting more out of life” Phillips observes, “the unlived life became a haunting presence in a life legitimated by nothing more than the desire to live it.”

If this life is the only one we can hope to live, then we too easily become obsessed with living and experiencing as much as possible. In turn, we also become obsessed with not missing out on anything, which is not only distressing for the individual, but ultimately destructive to society and culture. Just think of what consumer societies do to the planet and its resources: We cannot possibly satisfy an endless craving for more and more, or say that enough is ever enough.

The answer is that we need to celebrate the joy of missing out; FOMO must give way to JOMO. Joy comes with the realization that the quest for more-more-more is futile and is bound to end in despair. A truly happy life will almost always involve moderation.

Oscar Wilde famously proclaimed that he could resist everything except temptation; We might, however, raise a small warning flag and add that we should do everything in moderation — including moderation. The purpose of moderation and missing out is not some form of asceticism or self-torment but rather to live well and properly as human beings. Moderation is simply a key component of a flourishing life that most of us need to recognize.